Education

New Durham Public Schools Foundation asks public to help pay for what state won’t

Durham students show Gov. Roy Cooper how they start their day

Gov. Roy Cooper started his state-wide school supply drive at Pearsontown Elementary School in Durham on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. He visited classes and spoke to children during his visit.
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Gov. Roy Cooper started his state-wide school supply drive at Pearsontown Elementary School in Durham on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. He visited classes and spoke to children during his visit.

The state isn’t providing enough money for schools, so some business and community leaders say it’s time for the community to pitch in.

They have started a foundation to raise money to support the public schools. The new Durham Public Schools Foundation lets residents make tax-deductible donations to the school system.

Foundation leaders say the money could help schools pay for expenses the state doesn’t cover, such as student field trips or professional development for teachers.

The foundation puts Durham in line with other urban districts in the state that have set up similar nonprofits, including Wake, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Greensboro. Steve Unruhe, vice chair of the Durham board of education and one of the foundation’s first donors, said Durham used to have a foundation until it “went south” a decade ago.

“There’s been a lot of interest in supporting the school system and a lot of groups that support the school system in various ways,” Unruhe said. “But we’ve been really lacking a systematic approach to that, and that’s what the foundation can give us.”

In its first month, the new foundation raised approximately $125,000 from more than 90 donors, said board member Magan Gonzales-Smith. Most contributions have been individual donations under $1,000, with the largest to date coming from the Durham public schools system, according to the foundation’s “Supporters” page.

Gonzales-Smith explained that the school system made a one-time contribution of $70,000 in “early start-up funds” to help launch the foundation and that the group pledged to eventually invest more than $70,000 back into the school system.

“It is not uncommon that school districts provide funds at times to their local education foundation, but ultimately the foundation contributes far more back to district schools,” she said.

While the money is coming in, ideas on how to spend it are not quite as developed.

“It’s all going to depend on what we hear back from our communities,” Gonzales-Smith said. “It’s going to take us time to really get out there and hear what kinds of work is going to be most supportive to them. We just can’t say exactly what it is yet.”

unruhe
Steve Unruhe Harry Lynch hlynch@newsobserver.com

Broadly speaking, the foundation is meant to boost enrollment and improve the education for students already there. As a result, much of the money will likely go toward developing Durham’s teachers, said Unruhe, a retired teacher.

“There’s the simple and very concrete efforts to help teachers, so ways to have grants that teachers can apply for, support for teachers to design their own professional development, special projects, that kind of thing,” he said.

“One of the projects will certainly be to support teachers with their creative classroom ideas,” added Mayor Steve Schewel, an adviser to the foundation and former school board member.

The money will also help pay for new student experiences, Gonzales-Smith said. “If a middle school in Durham wants to take their eighth-grade class to D.C. to see the Smithsonian and African-American History Museum, we would fund trips like that.”

Parents can expect to benefit from the money, as well.

According to a fundraising solicitation, donations between $25 and $1,000 could help provide interpreters or other language assistance for parents visiting their child’s school.

But the foundation’s biggest impact may be helping the school system tell its story, Unruhe said.

“It’s very difficult to get the story of what’s happening in schools out to the community,” he said. “We badly need our communities to know what the public schools are doing.”

The foundation will not overlap with service-oriented education nonprofits already in Durham, and it will not use its money to purchase school supplies or offer tutoring services.

“That’s the job of the taxpayers directly,” Unruhe said. “This is a broader scale.”

Local education foundations have been around since the 1980s, said Robin Callahan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association. Approximately 4,000 of the nation’s 12,000 public school districts now have them, she said.

“Education foundations are the fastest-growing nonprofit sector,” Callahan said. “Every week almost, I talk to a new community that is working on starting a new education foundation.”

The Durham group will be led by a 20-person board of directors and receive guidance from six advisers, including Schewel, DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, former Mayor Bill Bell and state Rep. Marcia Morey, a former chief district court judge. The board will also be hiring a full-time executive director soon and putting together a list of “very specific measurable targets,” Gonzales-Smith said. Information on how to contribute can be found at bullcityschools.org/donate.

Bill McCarthy is a senior at Duke University studying public policy and journalism. He covers Durham schools for The 9th Street Journal. His work has also been published in PolitiFact, the News & Observer, Metro Éireann, Duke Magazine and The Chronicle at Duke University.

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